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A Los Angeles Primer: Grand Central Market

I’ve taken my recent trips to and from Bunker Hill exclusively by stair, owing to the current shutdown of Angels Flight, the beloved funicular that, when operational, carries passengers up from Hill Street and back down again. It doesn’t go out of order often, but when it does it often stays that way for some time: a fatal 2001 accident put it out of commission for nearly eight years, and before that, in 1969, the redevelopment of Bunker Hill brought about its dismantling and subsequent storage for just under three decades. What kind of a city, this leads one to ask, struggles to keep even the world’s shortest railway — and one of its few icons, at that — in continuous operation? In my case, this question encourages the darkly methodical contemplation of Los Angeles’ other infuriating qualities, one after the other: its vast, often ridiculous distances; the shabbiness of so much of its built environment, mini-malls and otherwise; the barely explicable gaps in, and slowness of the rest of, its rapid transit system; the percentage of its surfaces covered by advertisements for movies whose distributors couldn’t pay me to watch.

But moments before I decide to pull up stakes, I turn around and behold a counterargument: Grand Central Market, the urban emporium that has, since 1917, provided downtown residents a place to buy their produce. More recently than that, it has provided them a place to buy a variety of moles, dried chiles, and herbal medicines. More recently than that, it has provided them a place to buy a quick office-worker’s lunch. More recently still, it has provided them a place to buy ten-dollar hamburgers, thirteen-dollar Cobb salads, and six-dollar soy lattes. At this particular moment, these almost parodic manifestations of gentrification — preparation of that six-dollar soy latte involves not actual soy milk, but “a special almond milk we make here” — coexist fascinatingly with what habitués sometimes call the “old” Grand Central Market, by which they mean Grand Central Market as a delivery system of cheap vegetables and even cheaper meals. China Cafe, the most prominent representative of this era, appears right up front, its neon signs advertising “CHOP SUEY” and “CHOW MEIN” visible as soon as you enter from Hill. Come at the right time, well before the families and tourists turn up, and on its stools, beneath its menu surely unchanged by the decades, you can still find a handful of old alcoholics huddled over morning trays of egg foo young.

Read the whole thing at KCET Departures.

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